Here’s a man with no special desire to cultivate friendships among Sunderland fans. Charles Richards*, self-confessed posh Durham Uni type, responded to our request for a Tottenham Hotspur interviewee in a manner calculated to wind us all up. Loves Newcastle United, contemptuous of SAFC. He certainly wound up our star writer Pete Sixsmith, as you’ll see later today or tomorrow, but assures us it’s ‘all in the spirit of banter’. Charles runs his own fan site thespursreport and writes for another, The Tottenham Way. Now prepare to be offended …
Salut! Sunderland: [thinking aloud before our win at Swansea] You’re obviously licking your lips at the prospect of an easy win. Should we just fax the points down to save all the trouble of staging a game?
Charles Richards: Pretty much. We’re good this season. And you’re really not.
I wanted to put a “but” in the last question but couldn’t think of one beyond your sometimes erratic form and our occasional ability to raise our game. How good are Spurs?
Normally, this would be the moment to add in a reference to our “Spursy” past, but things are changing. We’ve lost twice all season (I’m doing this before we play Leicester), and have the tightest defence in the division. Only Bournemouth have run further and no team has made more tackles (and fouls). We’ve got the youngest team in the league, and arguably the most exciting. There have been plenty of false dawns for us Spurs fans, but for the first time in a long time it feels like we are building something serious. It’s exciting. And weird — very, very weird.
Between fourth and sixth top for six seasons – can you improve on that at last and is it just your luck that Arsenal are doing a little better?
Yup, things are shaping up very well. I think we’re the third best team in the league at the moment, presuming Leicester eventually cool off. We’re not quite on the level of Manchester City or Arsenal, but we could finish above Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea, which is quite an achievement. There’ll be bumps of course, but the Champions League is on.
As for Arsenal, of course it is annoying to always be behind them, but after 20 years you get used to it. We’re at different stages of development — we’re rising, and eventually Arsenal are going to have to replace Arsene Wenger. Just ask Man Utd how tough it is to replace a legendary manager. Also, as I wrote before the most recent derby, for the first time in a while, Arsenal fans are a little envious of Spurs due to our collection of homegrown players.
If not already addressed, what would it take to re-estabish Spurs as serious title and CL contenders, and is Mauricio Pochettino the man to lead you back to those heights?
I’m not sure “re-establish” is quite the right word — we’ve never really been serious title contenders in the Premier League era, let’s at least be honest about that. But overall, we’ve made huge strides in the last 18 months. We’re building a strong spine — the outstanding Hugo Lloris in goal, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in central defence, the midfield trio of Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele, and of course Harry Kane up front. Over the coming seasons, we’ll need to strengthen in wide positions, and also in depth of squad.
Mauricio Pochettino is absolutely the right man for the job. There were a few doubters when he joined, but not any more. You know, people talk about clubs needing to be patient with managers, but managers need to be patient with clubs too. Most managers dream of being able to transform a club like Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were able to, and very few get the chance. With the new stadium coming and a ton of talent in the academy, there is loads of potential at Spurs. Poch may need to be patient, particularly as Spurs are quite, how shall I put it, relentless in trying to find value in the transfer market. But there is a huge opportunity for him here. He has the fans, players and club hierarchy firmly on board.
As the SAFC song goes, ‘my garden shed is bigger than this’. How important is it that you replace your pleasant little stadium and start attracting real crowds? Bring us up to date on the NDP project for a new ground.
It is essential. Every home game, we move another £1 million behind Arsenal. Even with TV money pouring in, clubs can’t defy gravity like this forever. It is a huge project — the final cost of the development, including the land around the stadium, could be as high as £750 million. By comparison, the Stadium of Light cost just £15 million to build. Spurs will be taking on huge debt, but being able to stay in our “home”, where we’ve played for over 100 years, is incredible. We got planning permission in mid-December, and are awaiting a final couple of green lights before it is full speed ahead. So far, it is still on course to open in 2018/19.
Right: how do the present squad, and recent stars such as Bale, compare with the greats of the Spurs glory days even though you’ll be too young to have witnessed those at first hand?
The first Spurs team I saw contained Gary Lineker and Gazza — those were two pretty special players. Bale may be better than either of them, ability-wise, but never formed the emotional connection the other two did, in my mind at least. But there’s a young man at Spurs who has a chance to become a legend if he keeps on doing what he’s doing. Harry Kane is “one of of own”, and we love him.
And the best you’ve seen in Spurs colours, plus anyone you feel should have been allowed nowhere near them?
We’ve been lucky at Spurs, even in dark times we’ve had incredible players — in particular attacking talent like David Ginola, Jurgen Klinsmann and Dimitar Berbatov, or going further back Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles. We’ve also had some terrible players — some you forget, others you want to forget, and then we have those like Roberto Soldado, who was dreadful but somehow loved all the same.
Talking more about teams, I was very young when I saw Gazza and Lineker, so I can’t really say how “good” that team actually was. They won something (the FA Cup), at least. The most exciting team in recent memory was when we peaked under Harry Redknapp in 2011/2012 — Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield, Scotty Parker everywhere, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon causing mayhem down the flanks. But frankly, I think the current team would beat them — seriously, we’re good.
Lots of player links between our clubs – off the top of my head Waddle, Steed, Danny Rose, Darren Bent, Andy Reid – and there’s Gus Poyet, too, of course. Special thoughts on any of them?
Sunderland seem to be gathering a fair collection of ex-Spurs players — with Younes Kaboul and Jermain Defoe, and rumours that Andros Townsend, Sandro and even Steven Caulker may be heading that way as well. For Spurs fans, we’ll always have a special place for Defoe — he scored a bunch of goals for us and loved the club. I’d add, Danny Rose benefited hugely from his spell at Sunderland. He looked like he was going nowhere, but came back a Premier League-calibre left back. Not sure it’s working out quite so well for DeAndre Yedlin.
Your highs and lows as a Spurs fan?
The recent low point was when Chelsea won the Champions League and snatched our place. It was a huge financial blow, but also a blow to morale. The Europa League is basically no fun at all, and is utterly devalued as a competition due to Champions League failures coming in. Having to endure Tim Sherwood’s buffoonery, even for just six months, was another low. Whatever happens at Sunderland, please listen to me when I tell you: Don’t hire that man. Highs? Bale destroying Inter Milan’s Maicon was something I’ll never forget in terms of pure delirious joy.
Did you see our nightmare season coming or did you think we’d finally build on another survival?
You’ve been terrible for years, and there was no reason to suggest this season would be at all different. It’s funny, the managers change, but there’s still the same old players at Sunderland — the likes of O’Shea, Cattermole, Fletcher, Larsson — and the same old results. It’s almost as though they aren’t very good. You’ve finally got a proper manager in Big Sam, but it may now be too late. He is the perfect guy to bounce you back out of the Championship — so no doubt, Sunderland will contrive to blame him for what are clearly failures that predate him. I see pain for Sunderland in the next season or two, but softened by the promise of better days to come if you stick with Big Sam.
Otherwise, what impressions do you have of Sunderland – the club, fans, city & region, Big Sam?
I went to university at Durham, so I’ve been fortunate to spend time up in the North East. I loved it up there, it is stunning once you get into Northumberland, especially up the coast. Confession time though: I’ve always had a soft spot for Newcastle (our Spursy brother from the north), and went to a number of games at St James’ Park. I was there when Newcastle played Barcelona in the Champions League — I’ve never experienced a better atmosphere. My only two experiences of Sunderland from that time were going greyhound racing at East Boldon, which was an absolute laugh as a posh southern kid, and spending hours at Sunderland Royal Hospital when a friend, no kidding, choked on a chicken nugget. That was really boring, but fortunately she survived.
As for the club, due to my Newcastle predilection, I’m afraid my feelings for Sunderland aren’t at all good. How can I put it gently: you’ve been stinking up the Premier League for years, and I’d really like you to go down.
At least some other clubs down the bottom seem to be able to raise themselves for big games, and create an atmosphere that unsettles the opposition and makes for good viewing on TV. But with Sunderland, you get up for your annual beatings of Newcastle, snatch a few points off relegation rivals, and just about limp on for another year. Seriously, you are no fun at all. The only positive of Sunderland is your role as the league’s resident “useful idiots” — spending large amounts of money on squad players from bigger teams. Spending a combined £20 million on Fabio Borini and Jack Rodwell was very funny indeed, while at Spurs we greatly appreciate the £4 million (!) you gave us for what is left of Younes Kaboul.
This season’s top four in order?
Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd
And the bottom three, with no need to spare our feelings?
(Reverse order) Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich
Best ref, worst ref in the Premier?
I hate the debate about refs. Generally, the standard is incredible given the near-impossibility of the task. I thought goal-line technology would open the floodgates to more technology, but we seem to have stopped innovating. I guess the game’s governing body is a bit distracted at the moment. It seems crazy to me that, in 2016, you’ve still got linesmen crab-stepping up and down a touch line and trying to make accurate calls on offside when it is technically impossible to look in two places at once. Every millimetre of grass is now tracked, so something like offside could be automated, freeing up linesmen to actually be “assistant referees” — this would greatly approve the standard of officiating. Rant over.
Diving: I know Bale’s gone (quite theatrically, I’m told) but every club seems afflicted by the disease. Should we stop bothering about this and other forms of cheating and just try to get our players to do it better? If not, how do we stamp it out?
The problem with diving is incentives — a penalty, and therefore an unchallenged shot at goal, is normally a wildly better outcome than what was possible before the “foul” occurred. I’m all for bringing back indirect freekicks in the box, and making penalties only for fouls in the act of shooting. But I appreciate I may be on the fringe here. In the meantime, refs just need to keep booking players who dive — it’s the only response under the current rules. Bale was a bit of a diver, wasn’t he? Perfect for La Liga.
One step the football authorities could take to improve the lot of ordinary supporters?
I’m sure the common answer to this question is “lower ticket prices for fans, especially away fans” — but I think this debate can ignore the reality. It’s not just the tickets that are expensive, it’s your pre-match pints, train fare and bag of Quavers from WH Smith at the station. Britain is expensive, especially so the closer you get to London. From Spurs perspective, yes some premium matches are very expensive, but you can see the FA Cup 3rd Round, say, or Europa League games, for £25 a ticket — that’s really not bad at all for a major event in London. Spurs are having to spend hundreds of millions to build a new stadium to allow more fans to attend, and that money has to come from somewhere. As a Spurs fan, to demand lower prices, a new stadium, and a team that competes in the top four is having your cake and eating it.
To me, the biggest issue facing football, especially with TV money flooding in, is the ownership of clubs and ensuring they don’t fall into the hands of crooks or unsavoury individuals. When you see someone like Massimo Cellino, a convicted fraudster, take control of a great club like Leeds and run it like an idiot even when supposedly banned, it is clear the rules protecting clubs aren’t worth the paper they are written on. That should be a major focus of football authorities. Of course, no rules can prevent incompetence — as Villa, Newcastle and you lot demonstrate.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
I will not be attending — I don’t live in London and can rarely make it to matches, sadly. Ironically, Sunderland at home is one of the few games where I could get a ticket.
Score prediction: We’re going to win 2-0, and it’ll be comfortable.
* Charles Richards on himself: I’ve been a Spurs fan for 20-odd years. I’ve spent most of my career working overseas as a writer and editor, but I’m back in the UK now. With a bit more time on my hands, and friendlier timezones, I started writing about Spurs a while back and haven’t been able to stop. My blog is The Spurs Report, and I also do a weekly column for The Tottenham Way, a fan site. I tweet, but seem to be accruing new followers at the rate of about one per decade. It’s a slow process building a readership, but little by little I’m getting there — I greatly appreciate the opportunity to pontificate on Salut! Sunderland.
Interview: Colin Randall